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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Taking It Easy



What a lovely day for wandering along the beach and taking it easy after our exertions down the valley. I see that we have another of those Bee flies that we were discussing a few weeks back (see The Sweet Smell of Rain) investigating the sand. Quite an absorbing pastime and there are hobbyists who collect sand, studying its composition from places around the world. The bit that the bee fly is studying for instance contains dark grains, pure white grains and at least fifty shades of grey in between. The colours are determined by the mineral content and the shape depends upon whether it has been washed down from the hills or transported by wind and waves. Ours is angular suggesting that it has come down the valley like us and the colouration is typical of quartz and chert with that odd orange bit by his abdomen probably coming from one of the iron bearing rocks that we observed in How To Get Blood Out Of A Stone.

Let's walk along the back of the beach and see what else we can find. Those bunches of strap like leaves will throw up fragrant blooms of white Sea Daffodils in the summer but we have one common beach plant blossoming here and now and that's Sea Rocket. The seed pods have a very high concentration of erucic acid which is an omega 9 fatty acid and has a bit of a story behind it. You may be familiar with great yellow fields of rape, from which we get rapeseed oil. Rape and sea rocket are closely related and both contain high levels of this acid. We cultivate rapeseed oil for biofuel, animal feed and edible oil but the high levels of erucic acid became a cause of concern after laboratory tests in the 1970s showed that if you stuffed rats full of the stuff then it had a toxic effect on the heart. To be honest, if you pig out exclusively on anything it will probably do you harm – even water can poison you in high enough doses. Enter two bright sparks from the University of Manitoba in Canada who bred rapeseed low in erucic acid and called it Canola oil. Nowadays we just genetically modify the plant of course and canola is widely marketed as the healthy cooking oil. I'll let you make your own mind up on that one.

Here's a pretty little lady, she's a Long tailed Blue. Not as showy as the male who has a lot more blue on his upper wings but it pays not to be too conspicuous when you're sitting there egg laying. This maybe what she has in mind now. Her caterpillars feed on a wide range of leguminous plants in the Fabaceae family such as this Cretan Ebony which is just coming into flower. Shall we take a wander down to the sea and clamber along those interesting looking rocks over there?







That seems like a nice place to stop and watch the marine world go by. Not much in the way of fish today... the odd shore crab scuttling about... but there's some seaweed down there which may be harbouring some microscopic life. Let's have a look. Ah, our old friends the diatoms, the very basis of the food web. These are marine diatoms and different to those that we found under the dripping stalactite in A Recipe For Life.
Those wedge shaped ones often cluster together, narrow ends facing inwards, so that they make a complete circle like a flower head. I expect that we disturbed them when we rudely hauled them out of the sea and plonked them on a microscope slide. I think we'll rinse the slide and put them back. You know, it's almost warm enough to join them in there. Maybe in a couple of weeks. When the sea's had a chance to warm up a bit.

The Extra Bit

If you'd like to become an arenophile and collect sand as a hobby there's a society just for you: http://sandcollectors.org/become-a-collector/






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Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Once More Onto The Beach, Dear Friends


Back in the middle of November last year we began our Descent into the Milonas Valley and here we are in the middle of April rapidly approaching the sea. Back then we were accompanied by Red Admiral and Painted Lady butterflies and now the Old World Swallowtails have joined us. I saw the first ones at the end of March and like the poppies that we saw last week they are now appearing about a month later than in 2006. A similar trend can be seen with the first swallows although the swifts are much the same as they were then. Only the vine leaves seem to be bucking the trend; they are now appearing about a month earlier. As we were discussing last week, the seasons are going out of synch.

No matter, we will enjoy the spring while there is still a spring to be enjoyed and I see that the Silver Wattle is now bursting into golden globes of flower. This shrubby tree, which is also known as Mimosa, was originally a native of Australia but has been widely introduced into the Mediterranean and is pretty well naturalised here in Crete. Apparently these are traditionally given on International Women’s Day in Italy and a few other European countries. Seeing as that was on March 8th I can only presume that it flowers earlier up there – or it did when the tradition began.



The stream is now placidly flowing between banks of vegetation: great tall reeds and the pungent tree spurge are on the opposite bank while over here straggly asters are poking through the lesser reeds and grasses. I see that we have a flower chafer taking a rest in the sun on this one. These are big, bumbling beetles which emerge in considerable numbers in the spring months and give rise to various stories in folklore. Their relatives are known as May bugs or June beetles in the UK.





Here’s an interesting little critter; it’s a Grove Snail and the interesting thing about these are that they come in many guises, from pale and almost unmarked like this one to bright yellow with chocolate bands. The one thing that they all have in common is the brown, slightly protuberant lip at the base of the shell. Snails with different patterns are called ‘morphs’ (having more than one appearance in nature is known as polymorphism) and which morph is prevalent in an area is determined partly by the genetic make-up and partly down to the preferences of their predators (who tend to go for the commonest morph as being tried and tested as it were).

Here we are at the end of the vegetation; a sprawling tamarisk and then the beach. There’s also a lentisc bush with a nice orb web stretched across it and the architect has just spotted us. It has run along the top anchor line and taken refuge under a leaf. You may wonder how they get that first anchor line, which may be metres long, into place. The answer, as Bob Dylan observed, is blowin’ in the wind. The spider produces a very thin line of silk and just lets it drift. When it snags on a distant piece of vegetation the spider feels the vibrations and reels it in until it’s taut. It then runs back and forth along the line, like a demented tightrope walker, laying strengthening lines until it has a cable strong enough to support the rest of the web (the construction of which we discussed in The Incredible Shrinking Safari).

The Extra Bit

And so we reach the end of the Milonas Valley having followed the stream from its origins in the Thriptis mountains all the way down here to Ferma Bay. Would you believe it? Even down here on the beach we still have tadpoes. I don’t give much for their chances of survival but toads are r-strategists like last week’s kestrel and produce far more offspring than could ever hope to survive. Might make a nice lunch for that Little Ringed Plover though. Talking of lunch there’s a nice little taverna by the beach - a drop of ouzo and a few mezedes would go down a treat in the spring sunshine.



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LINKS:
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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

If Spring Never Sprung


Crown Daisies, Glebionis coronaria
We are nearly at the end of our journey down the Milonas Valley but before we reach the point where the little river enters the sea I want to take a slight detour to a small, fallow field nearby because it sums up this season of spring so succinctly. In this one field I counted twenty different wild flowers when I chanced upon it the other day so let us wander among the crown daisies and the poppies and watch spring in action.




Buff-tailed Bumble bee, Bombus terrestris Common Poppy, Papaver rhoeas





This is no quiet landscape; a veritable orchestra of insects are chirruping, buzzing and droning as they go about their business of collecting from the flowers, pollinating as they go. The deep bass notes of the Buff-tailed Bumblebee down in this Common Poppy are counterpointed by the Honey Bees investigating the Yellow Asphodels around the edges of the field.







Flower Weevils,  Malvaevora timida Common Mallow, Malva sylvestris




The beetles too are adding a further layer to the symphony. All our old friends are here; the Soldier Beetles, the Flower Chafers and the carpet Beetles but who are these small fellows hiding in the folds of the Mallows? Some tiny little Flower Weevils and not all fellows it would appear. There is definitely some action going on here that you wouldn’t expect of the Royal Philharmonic (not during a concert at any rate). 







Pale Shoulder, Acontia lucida Mediterranean Sand-spurrey, Spergularia diandra
I think we’ll take our lead from this Pale Shoulder moth and laze awhile on these soft beds of Spurrey. The larvae of the Pale Shoulder feed on Goosefoots and Mallows among others and this field hosts plenty of both so it’s no surprise to find it here. No great wonder to find so much Spurrey either as it is a very salt tolerant plant and we’re very close to the sea. You know, I could lay here in the spring sunshine for hours just listening and watching but there are so many intriguing sights, scents and sounds that are just crying out to be investigated. Let us move on.

juvenile Balkan Green Lizard, Lacerta trilineata
Where you have insects you have predators of course and here among the stones at the edge of the fields the lizards are lurking ready to snap at any unwary insect that comes too close. Just stop and listen for a while: overlaying the rhythmic background of the insects you can hear the intertwined melodies of the songbirds in the olive groves that surround us. The trilling piccolos of the finches, the percussive rattling song of the Sardinian warbler and the beautiful flute solo of the Blackbird. Spring is indeed the most wonderful of seasons.




The Extra Bit

Spring has definitely sprung; the flowers are blooming, the insects are pollinating and the birds are singing for mates in the trees. But what if spring never sprung?* Or leastways, if it failed to spring in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed? Unfortunately this is happening right now. From my own notes I know that the rainfall patterns have shifted forward by a month in the last ten years, the Crown Daisies that used to start flowering in November/December are now rarely seen before January and the insects aren’t always keeping pace with the changes. That Pale Shoulder moth was one of the few noctuid moths that I’ve seen this winter whereas ten years ago I was photographing species by the score. Worldwide the climate is changing. Of that there is no doubt and arguing about whether we are to blame or whether it is part of a natural cycle is pointless now. If the flowers, insects and birds go out of synchronisation (and evidence shows that they are) then our agriculture also slips out of gear. We are going to have to adapt to survive. Sure we can do it, by cobbling together artificial solutions to crises as they arrive, but days like this will be lost.  The Mayans, Romans and Ancient Egyptians have shown us that civilisations don’t last forever and western civilisation as we now know it is in for an interesting century.

For pedants and students of the English language the phrase "If Spring Never Sprung" is grammatically incorrect. Either "If Spring Never  Sprang" or "If Spring had Never Sprung" would be correct but they do not have the same impact as a title.
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LINKS:
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See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The Sweet Smell of Rain

Ah, the sweet, rich smell of rain. That distinctive scent wafting up our nostrils comes from a naturally occurring plant oil that is absorbed by soil and rocks during dry periods. When rain falls, the oil is released into the air along with an organic compound called geosmin that's produced by the bacteria in wet soil. It’s this combination that creates that clean, earthy, “just-rained smell”. Rain itself has no odour. Even acid rain looks and smells just like the normal kind.



We’ve had rather a lot of rain recently but before we go down and see what effect it has had on our stream I noticed this little patch of ground when we emerged onto the track last week. It is regularly cultivated later in the spring but let’s have a look and see what’s taken hold before the rotavator moves in. Plenty of Wood Sorrell here at our feet and some stands of White Mustard in front of the Date Palms but just check out these little pink flowers. These are Small Herb Robert and they are certainly attracting the little Bee Flies. As their name suggests they are flies that have evolved to protect themselves by looking like bees. Whenever you come across an animal that seems to have two contradictory names the second name tells you what it is and the first name tells you what it resembles. Thus a Whale Shark is a shark that resembles a whale and a Curlew Sandpiper is a sandpiper that looks like a curlew and not the other way around.


The rain has certainly put a bit more vim and vigour into our stream; it looks as though it can’t wait to get to the sea. Let’s have a dig along the bank and see what turns up. Earthworms – now these are quite exciting for me because I don’t see many in our arid climate out here. The one on the right is an adult Lobworm and the one on the left looks to be a juvenile. How can you tell the difference? Earthworms are hermaphrodite (both male and female) and when they mature they develop a ‘saddle’, technically called the clitellum, which contains the eggs. After two earthworms have mated the sperm from worm 1 is transferred up the body of worm 2 to the saddle (and vice-versa), the clitellum secretes material that forms a ring which the worm then slides out of and injects the eggs and sperm into it. The ring seals itself into a cocoon in which the baby worms develop, emerging as fully formed juveniles two or three months later. Now you know all about the sex life of the earthworm. You’ve always wanted to know that, haven’t you?

I see that we have a diminutive cascade running into our stream from the valley side. Do you fancy a climb? We could do with a change of scene. There are quite a number of White Hedge-nettles about: another totally misleading name as they are not nettles at all and they don’t always grow in hedges as you can see. If you look at the flower shape you can see that they are similar in design to Sage, Rosemary and many of the other culinary herbs and that is because they are in the same family. Nettles are in a completely different family and their flowers are totally dissimilar and very dull in comparison. Mind you, you can eat nettles but as far as I know there are no recipes for White Hedge-nettles despite their family connections. That may be one for our friend Haris Saslis at Forage Crete to investigate.






Here’s another one of those pesky flies trying to look like something it isn’t. It has all the colouring and shape of a wasp but it’s a Hoverfly. This one is male and they usually appear earlier in the spring than the females giving them a chance to mature (you know how long it takes us boys to grow up –I’m not sure I’ve got there yet). How do I know it’s a male? The eyes are set very close together and appear to almost join in the middle. In the female the eyes are set further apart.






Quite a nice view of the opposite side of the valley from up here and we’re almost back to the coast. Look back down to the track a moment. There, sitting on top of that telegraph pole – a kestrel. They often patrol up and down this valley. They’ll be breeding soon, nesting in holes and scrapes in the cliffs or maybe in an old crow’s nest. They can lay up to six or seven eggs and like many birds they are r-strategists. That is they spread their parental care over a number of offspring allowing the strongest to survive. This compares to animals like ourselves who are k-strategists (in the developed world at least) who have fewer offspring but devote considerable care and attention to ensuring that they all survive. I sometimes wonder, from a purely biological rather than a humanitarian viewpoint, whether we in the developed world are correct in imposing our k-strategy thinking on those parts of the world where the r-strategy prevails.

And on that thought I think we’ll call it a day and make our way back down to the track. Watch your footing, going down can be more treacherous than climbing up and I don’t want to pick you up in a heap at the bottom.

The Extra Bit

Just in case these blog posts give you a taste for visiting the Mediterranean I am hosting a new facebook site called Mediterranean Island Insights which features posts from bloggers on various Mediterranean Islands. Here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1309179912496006/


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LINKS:
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See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Tales of the Riverbank

If we just push our way through these giant canes we should find the…splash!...stream. I’ve found the water; my right foot has at any rate. I’ve also found a rather interesting character wandering over this rock here. An eight legged arachnid but not a spider. She is one of the hard backed ticks (like books, they come in hard back and soft back) and I think that she’s a Brown Dog Tick. Although they prefer dogs as hosts (and we have plenty of hunting dogs in this area) they will take blood from any mammal including us. As she can host bacteria that would result in us catching Mediterranean spotted fever she is best avoided – like the plague as it were. I think we’ll press on.

This looks like a nice spot to sit and rest for a while with a little waterfall gurgling beside us. I don’t see any ticks about and fortunately they are not particularly numerous so let’s probe about in the leaf litter and see who’s at home. Ah, a tiny, bright red, harmless bug. Very small, very colourful and very vulnerable; which is probably why it’s hiding in the leaf litter.  Bugs have to grow up just like we do and this one is just a toddler so to speak. Later on it will moult into new clothing, changing styles (much as our children do when growing up) and finally reaching the full adult livery of our old friend the Soldier Bug. Then, of course, it’s off to find a mate and start the cycle again as we saw last week.

Well, we’d better move on but it looks as though we’ll have to crawl through the undergrowth once again. These magnificent plants with the mottled stems and white patched leaves are Dragon Arums which will throw up a huge purple spathe next month. Very impressive and I’m sure we’ll see some when the time comes. Meanwhile, I’ve just dislodged a piece of bark from a rotting tree stump and a couple of woodlice have rolled out. Some woodlice can roll up into a tight ball like this and, like Ernie Wise’s wig, you can’t see the join. These are commonly known as pill bugs in the family Armadillidiidae. The odd thing about these two are those lumpy bits called tubercles. They’re very pronounced and require a bit more investigation as I don’t think that they’re common woodlice. You may think that a woodlouse is a woodlouse is a woodlouse but there are over 200 species in Greece alone and they’re a fascinating group of animals to study.

The river bank is a great place to find rotting logs and tree stumps and gently peeling away the outer bark can often reveal a kaleidoscope of life going on. Let’s have a look under this one. A worm, but not an earthworm. See the way that it’s anchored its backside to the wood and is swishing away at the front? That is characteristic of a Nematode. They don’t have the ability to crawl like earthworms. Did you know that they can eat up to five thousand bacteria a minute? That is, if they don’t get eaten themselves first. There seems to be a fungus growing up not far from its head and there are such things as nematophagous fungi that prey specifically on nematodes; catching them in glue traps or lassoing them. I don’t think that this is one of those though. I think that it is in far more danger from that little scorpion there. I have an irresistible urge to call “He’s behind you!” in true pantomime tradition. By the way, the nematode is definitely an ‘it’ and not a he or she. Like slugs and snails, nematodes are hermaphrodite with both male and female sexual organs.

I think that we can stand up now and if we push our way through these canes we should get back to the track – eventually. It’s like trying to break out of prison isn’t it? Here we are, scratched, torn but happy, back on terra firma and there’s an inconspicuous little flower down by our feet. A little flower with a big history. It has been used to mummify Egyptian royalty, sail Roman ships,  provide a good night’s sleep for European nobles and oil the bats of the England Cricket team. It is Linum bienne or pale flax, the wild ancestor of the cultivated flax that has been used to make linen for millennia and the source of linseed oil. It also gave us the words line, lining, lingerie and linoleum; and to think I almost trod on it.

The Extra Bit

Flax and linen have gone out of fashion a bit but a couple of years ago I was at the Cotswold Show in England when I came across this flax fabric and flax oil resin canoe from Flaxland. I want one. I wonder if they’ll give me a discount on the strength of this link? (They make lots of other marvellous linen products as well).






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LINKS:
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The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

To St. John’s Ford

Algerian Iris, Iris unguicularis
Here we are below the Milonas waterfall and the cataract is still tumbling down through the rocks sounding like a symphony of swirling streams. A veritable jungle of giant cane and oleander surround us and up among the rocks small flowers like this Algerian Iris are taking advantage of every crack and crevice that holds a modicum of soil.  Not only is it a ridiculously pretty little flower but its rhizomes - the underground stems - contain some useful compounds (Kaempferol and 8-Methoxyeriodictyol if you're into phytochemistry), both of which are important in the fight against diabetes and a wide range of cancers[1].



 
Tropinota beetle and Spilostethus Seed Bugs
It looks as though machetes will be needed to get through this next bit so I think we’ll take a detour up over the bank. With the temperatures now in the upper twenties Celsius and wall-to-wall sunshine the insects are anticipating next week’s spring equinox. The hairy Tropinota Beetles are all over the place and this one is gorging himself on a Cretan Cistus. Some insects, like the bees, flit from flower to flower but he’ll be there for an hour or more availing himself of every last bit of nourishment. Meanwhile the seed bugs are busy making more seed bugs. Unlike the Tiger Beetles who go for the direct mounting technique (see last week) Seed Bugs prefer the back-to-back method of mating. Not particularly romantic but equally effective.

Caddisfly larva, Trichoptera sp.
I can see a light at the end of the tunnel; if we just thrust our way through this bush… ah, we’re back to the stream. Let’s sit and peer into it for a bit and get our breath back. Pass me the net will you, I think there’s something going on down by that rock. Now why do you think that this little nymph is poking his head into that pile of sand? He’s not doing it voluntarily. That pile of sand is hiding a Caddisfly larva. There’s another one down there look. They spin a cocoon of sticky silk around themselves and cunningly cover it with surrounding materials; sand and grit in this case, then lay in wait and ambush unsuspecting prey. Our poor nymph is being eaten head first.

Diatoms
If you look at some of these rocks they’re covered with rather uninteresting looking brown slime. This is the next stage of the biofilm that we saw developing in A Recipe For Life. If you take the sampling kit – yes, that’s it: a screw top container and an old toothbrush. Just half fill the container with water, scrape the rock with the toothbrush and stir item 1 with item 2 – I’ll set up the field microscope and we’ll see what’s lurking within. Look at that, no less than nine species of diatoms; those minute life forms at the base of the food web. Fascinating aren’t they?



Spawn of the Green Toad, Bufotes viridis
Signs of civilisation, a vehicle track. If we were to follow it round to the left we’d find a waymarked path to the waterfall (but it wouldn’t have been as much fun as hacking through the undergrowth). To the right it goes down to Ferma Bay one way and up to Agios Ioannis the other. As I’ve said previously Agios Ioannis translates as St. John so I’ve always called this place St. John’s Ford but you won’t find it marked as such on any map. I see that the Green Toads have been busy. That clump of what looks like spotted snakes coiled around those reeds is toadspawn and the black dots are emerging tadpoles, there are a few swimming around look. You can tell that it’s toadspawn and not frogspawn because toads lay their spawn in long strings whereas frogs lay theirs in a jelly-like mass. Worldwide, amphibians are suffering deaths to the point of extinction in some species from ranaviruses[2] but thankfully I’ve seen no signs of it locally. However, we’ll keep an eye on them on our travels.

 Talking of which, I think we’ll call that it for today and explore downstream next week. Spring will have well and truly sprung by then so it will be ‘eyes everywhere’ to catch all that’s going on.


The Extra Bit

Those diatoms we were looking at under the microscope are interesting enough when they’re still but when you watch them going about their daily business they are absolutely mesmerising. Here’s a short video for you:  https://youtu.be/DWctIwT3dFI 






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LINKS:
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See detailed pictures at http://www.inaturalist.org/login  (search - people-stevedaniels-observations)
The Nature of Crete  (Flipboard Magazine)